Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Don't You Believe

Note to visitors: This post parses three versions of the same song, "Don't You Believe."  The version by Buck White and the Down Home Folks is from an out-of-print vinyl album and it sounds a bit worn.

From 1966 to disbanding in 1970, the Pozo-Seco Singers released several albums.  A standard-issue folk group of the era, they had a mellow, acoustic sound that achieved moderate chart success.
Starting out in the Corpus Christi, Texas area, they took their interesting name "Pozo Seco" from an oil-field term for a dry well.

   Don't You Believe:
   Don Williams

In 1972, one of their founding members, Don Williams, surfaced with his first single, "Don't You Believe.”

The song has a loping, spacious sound, situated somewhere near the western end of country and western.  It wasn't popular but it was a hit for me, and Williams subsequently became very popular in the 1970's and 1980's, with forty-five songs in the Top Ten on the Billboard Country Music Chart, seventeen reaching #1.

   Don't You Believe:
   The Whites

Five years later, Buck White and the Down Home Folks (now The Whites) recorded a cover of "Don't You Believe" on their 1977 album That Down Home Feeling (Ridge Runner Records, out of print).  Their version is more southern, closer to the bluegrass end of country.  The 1977 line-up included Buck White (mandolin) and daughters, Sharon (lead vocal, guitar) and Cheryl (bass), also Sharon's husband-to-be, Ricky Skaggs (fiddle), Jerry Douglas (dobro), and Roland White (guitar).  Not all are obviously present on "Don't You Believe," but I hear a whisper of Skaggs in the refrain's background vocals, and Douglas's dobro punctuates the song.

These people are bluegrass royalty today.  Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Douglas are masters of the mandolin and dobro respectively: Skaggs has fourteen Grammy Awards; Douglas, twelve.  Roland White is a Grammy winning mandolin virtuoso as well.  No relation to Buck White, Roland and his siblings were born into the LeBlanc family, their parents having been Acadian immigrants from New Brunswick, Canada.  (His younger brother Clarence White was in the 1968-1973 incarnation of The Byrds.  He is ranked #41 on Rolling Stone magazine's "100 Greatest Guitarists Of All Time" and #42 on Gibson Guitar's "Top 50 Guitarists Of All Time."  He was killed at age 29 by a drunk driver.)

Prior to 1977, Skaggs had played with Ralph Stanley’s
Clinch Mountain Boys; Douglas, with The Country Gentlemen; Roland White, with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys and Lester Flatt’s Nashville Grass.  Both Skaggs and Douglas, along with superb acoustic guitarist Tony Rice, are featured on my all-time favorite bluegrass album, J.D. Crowe & The New South (1975).

Lyrically and structurally, The Whites hewed to the Don Williams original: a double-decker song of refrain-verse-refrain-verse-refrain. The refrain is catchy:

Don't you believe I've tried long enough
Don't you just believe it's time
Don't you believe I've gone far enough
Don't you just believe it's time

And it sandwiches two verses, the overall song going:


Lord knows I've tried 

Just to keep you off my mind
But it's no use nothing works
You just stay with me all the time


All I do is follow you
Reaching for you with my mind
Your sweet love is all I need
And I think you've known it all the time


   Don't You Believe:
   Lyn Conover, et al.

Moving forward thirty-one years to 2008, we find another cover of "Don't You Believe," this one from St. Jeffrey's Day: The Songs of Jeffrey Frederick, Volume I, a tribute album to the late singer-songwriter Jeffrey Frederick.  Frederick was associated initially with his 1970's group the Clamtones, and with collaboration with the Holy Modal Rounders from that same time period.  Both groups shared an off-center sound, a kind of alternative, fractured folk music. 

The artists on 2008's "Don't You Believe" are Lynn Conover, Susanna Weaver, Jim Brunberg, Lex Browning, and Dave Reisch.  All are based out of Portland, Oregon, and Reisch was a member of the Clamtones and the Holy Modal Rounders.  As noted in the album's title, this version is identified as a Jeffrey Frederick song –– which is confusing since it's a Don Williams song (viz. United States Copyright Office's 1972 registration of the song).

Source-checking errors presumably were made, and I'm sure "Don't You Believe" was thought by the St. Jeffrey's Day's compilers to be a Jeffrey Frederick's song.  After all, a semi-obscure song from 1972 may be etched in my mind, but not necessarily in the minds of those combing through a late artist's archives decades later.

In any event I like the 2008 version.  It is clearly the Don Williams' song melodically though it shows alterations in lyrics.  Some changes are minor, some are rewrites, and one change –– a pronoun shift from I to we –– is interesting.

Don't you believe we've gone far enough
Don't you just believe it's time
Don't you believe we've tried hard enough
Don't you just believe it's time

Using we makes the resignation in the song seem more consensual: it shifts the tone from "I've given this my best shot" to "Let's stop kidding ourselves."  That said, the we pronoun occurs only in the refrain.  The form is used in the verses that alternate with the refrain.  The resulting back and forth movement feels like what you might find in an actual conversation in which two individuals work toward a joint perspective.

These non-refrain verses are shown here beside the Don Williams' originals (highlighted):

Lord knows I've tried and tried              Lord knows I've tried
Just to drink you off my mind                Just to keep you off my mind
Lord knows I've drifted on                     But it's no use nothing works
But your memory stays with me           You just stay with me all the time
all the time

Lord knows I've thought about              All I do is follow you

The look in your eye every morning      Reaching for you with my mind
I wake,                                                  Your sweet love is all I need
Lord knows I've told myself,                  and I think you've known it all
Stay alone, stay away                           the time

The Jeffrey Frederick version is less bittersweet, less wishful, more resolute: "Stay alone, stay away."  Copyright confusion aside, were we to reimagine "Don't You Believe" as a traditional song –– with uncertain authorship and countless variations, à la "Old Blue" for instance –– then the "Frederick" version might seem an inspired adaptation. 

And what's not to like?  Regardless of which version of "Don't You Believe" we're listening to, it's a fine song.

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